You couldn’t make it up. May has survived until the autumn (probably) after an utterly remarkable week of chicanery and confusion in British politics. Alan Davies argues that we now face an autumn that could be the most decisive in British history for a very long time.
May only survived defeat over a key Brexit amendment that could have brought her government down with the support of four Labour MPs—Kate Hoey, John Mann, Frank Field and Graham Stringer—who saved her skin. But for their actions we might now be heading into a general election with the prospect of a Corbyn Government, as the Tory whips office told their MPs to keep them in line. Momentum has called for them to be disciplined and/or deselected, and they are absolutely right. The whip should be withdrawn. Kate Hoey’s Vauxhall constituency GM has now unanimously called for her to have the whip withdrawn and for her to be deselected, and a similar motion was passed overwhelmingly at Frank Field’s Birkenhead GM.
A proposal from the Tories for Parliament to close four days early in to make it difficult for Tory MPs to move a no-confidence vote in May was withdrawn after protests from Labour, and when it became clear that such a move would be lost anyway. Even if anyone in the Tory Party other than Boris Johnson wanted the job at this point, it would not be possible to change leader without a general election, which Labour would be likely to win.
A ‘clear plan’?
The shambles has been remarkable. When May became Tory leader, she insisted that her government (before and after she lost her majority) had a ‘clear plan’ for Brexit. They knew what kind of Brexit they wanted, but could not set it out because this would reveal their negotiating stance to the EU! It was a crass and calculated lie, repeated regularly for over two years. When the crunch eventually came, not only did they have no plan but were so divided that they were incapable of agreeing one without tearing themselves apart.
May’s answer to keeping the 40 or so hard-line Tory Brexiteers happy—including the European Research Group (ERG), led by Jacob Rees Mogg and Steve Baker—was to declare that ‘Brexit meant Brexit’ and ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’—as contained in her much-vaunted Mansion House speech. ‘No deal’ is, in any case, was the preferred option ERGs, though they did not (and do not) say so openly.
At the end of May, however, May dramatically abandoned her ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ stance and adopted instead ‘maximum regulatory alignment’, a ‘back-stop’ arrangement with the EU inevitably involving some form of common customs union, which would in turn exclude trade deals with the rest of the world.
It triggered an unprecedented civil-war in the Tory Party—which has a has a high bench mark with such conflicts—which raged until Parliament closed for the summer and will reopen in the autumn with renewed vigour. It is the biggest Tory split since Robert Peel and the Corn Laws. It was a major blow to the credibility of the Brexit process, if it had any credibility left, and increased the possibility of the whole process being reversed.
Why did she do it? Objective reality and approaching deadlines, no doubt, played a role as well as growing pressure from big business. With a string of big companies protested about the consequences of a hard Brexit Boris Johnson’s position of ‘fuck business’, was simply not viable for a Tory leader. It had been left to Jeremy Corbyn to point out that there was something in what big business was saying.
There was also the intractable problem of the Irish border staring her in the face. If you want to avoid a border in Ireland ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ is the worst possible way of going about it. No deal would lead inevitably to the imposition of a physical border because the EU would insist on it because it would now be an external border of the EU (a link in the chain of fortress Europe) and the WTO would insist on it because it would be the divide between distinct jurisdictions—the EU and the WTO. The only possibility of avoiding it would be to remain a part of the EU regulatory structures
The Chequers plan
Chequers was an attempt to bang heads together, and assert May’s authority and collective cabinet responsibility. Under the plan:
- Britain would effectively stay in the EU customs union—described as a ‘combined customs territory’—to avoid a hard border with Ireland
- A ‘common rulebook’ would keep British producers bound by EU rules on goods—including farmers.
- Parliament would oversee these rules—but it was accepted that deciding not to abide by them would have ‘consequences’.
- A UK-EU ‘Joint Committee’ to oversee and rule on disputes which would be settled based on more than 40 years of EU law.
- Britain would be responsible for collecting EU tariffs and implementing EU trade policy for goods passing through Britain.
The plan was to be published as a white paper, but had fallen apart by the time they got back to London. Boris Johnson and David Davis resigned (along with Davis’s hard-line deputy Steve Baker) and were followed by a string of more junior people. Johnson described the deal as ‘a turd’ that they were being asked to polish.
Gove and Fox stuck with May on the basis that the deal was the best on offer. But May accepted an amendment from the ERG that contradicted the general principles from Chequers even before it came to the floor of the House. Most Tory Brexiteers were furious with the ‘agreement’. Johnson denounced it in his resignation speech as ‘Brexit in name only’ and as ‘a miserable permanent limbo’ – consistent with positioning himself for the next Tory leadership contest.
Labour, meanwhile, rose in the polls by between 1 and 5 points, and would do even better if not for the continual smears of antisemitism, the only purpose of which is, as McCluskey has noted, to try to force Corbyn out. The Tories have lost a similar amount, though this is benefitting UKIP —which makes sense because that is where many of them originally came from. UKIP has seen a surge in membership this year. UKIP is also realigning itself further towards the hard right, particularly with its support for the free Tommy Robinson campaign. Alongside the possibility of a Tory party captured by Johnson and Rees-Mogg, alarm bells should sound against a far right resurgence based on the nationalism and racism unleashed by the referendum campaign.
A YouGov poll for the Sunday Times between July 19-20, spun by them as showing that voters are turning to far-right parties and to Boris Johnson, actually shows Corbyn’s Labour doing well. Asked ‘how potential Tory leaders would fare against Jeremy Corbyn’, Corbyn came out well ahead of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Michael Gove, Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt, and level pegging with Boris Johnson. The poll also shows a strengthening of the anti-Brexit vote in the event of a second referendum to 54% against 46%. The poll (unsurprisingly) records disastrous levels of support for the Chequers deal, the usual fate of things that set out to straddle a divide and please no one.
Just when you think British politics can hardly polarise any more it does. We could well be heading towards a monumental confrontation in the autumn between a reorganising right wing and a resurgent and radicalising Labour Party.
The EU response
The EU elites responded politely but unequivocally to the government proposals. Barnier told May they were a non-starter because they breach fundamental principles of the EU. Britain would have to respect the integrity of the single market. There are no circumstances under which the EU would allow its borders to be administered by a third party—the central idea of May’s plan.
What the EU has done in practice, is to redouble plans for Britain crashing out with no agreement. Instructions were sent to all member states to ramp up preparations. Even the British government, while maintaining the pretence that they will get a good deal, has started to make contingencies for no deal. Dominic Raab, the new Minister for Exiting the EU (since replaced by May herself), in an interview with Marr on Sunday July 22 refused to deny that the government was preparing motorways to act as lorry parks and starting to stockpile food. Later it was revealed that medical supplies are also being stockpiled.
Crashing out on a right-wing agenda would be catastrophic. It would have a dramatic impact on jobs and wages public spending and living standards, on democratic and civil rights and social conditions but it would put the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson, with hard right forces that have been growing on the streets standing behind them, in a position to shape the future. Racism and the right-wing agenda would be given another boost. The position of EU citizens living Britain and British citizens living in EU countries would be back in limbo. Britain would be forced into trade deals based on US style deregulation and market forces as determined by the ultra-right and the Trump agenda. It would cost jobs, hit working class communities hardest and speed up the destruction of the NHS and other public services. This is not what anyone voted for. The Tories have no mandate for such plans.
Corbyn and McDonnell have been absolutely right as to where Brexit is going. It is leading to Britain as a low wage deregulated entity off the northern shores of the European Union regulated by WTO tariffs rules and regulations. Fortunately we have the possibility of a leftward moving Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn preparing to step in as an alternative government—but we are not there yet.
The situation we face in the autumn is very dangerous. Which why Brexit should be a major item on the agenda of the LP conference this September.
Parliament could be faced with two completely unacceptable choices: the Chequers/May proposal on the one hand or crashing out of the EU other. May hopes that the first will be accepted in order to avoid the second as a ‘lesser evil’. Labour’s job must be to ensure that both are rejected—which should not be difficult since with Labour voting against there is unlikely to be a Commons majority for either option.
The problem is, what comes next? The only acceptable response to the political and constitutional crisis that would result from both (or all) proposals being defeated would be a general election, giving Labour the chance to junk the whole disastrous process. But this raises important political choices—in particular the issue of a second referendum.
For Labour to attempt end the Brexit process simply by a vote in Parliament arising from a pledge in Labour’s manifesto could be damaging. In the end the only thing that could credibly reverse the 2016 referendum vote would be a second referendum vote. Anything less would risk the whole election campaign being dominated by a debate around why Labour was not prepared to call one.
Labour needs to kill this off by making a second referendum a manifesto pledge. Not to do so could jeopardise the outcome of the election. It is true that a second referendum coincides with the demand of the Blairites, but the left has to determine it position by what is in the long-term interests of the working class, not by what the Blairites are saying at a particular time.
There is in any case a growing body of progressive opinion forming around this general approach. It is what Another Europe is Possible is campaigning for this, and it is right and important that they are doing so. Labour for a Peoples Vote has also just been launched, and argues a similar approach from a less politically rigorous position.
This is not about the general principles of referenda. But it was a referendum is that is determining the situation we are in – and only another referendum can convincingly reverse that. There is no guarantee that the original decision would be reversed, of course, although the signs are encouraging. But the alternative of sitting back and crashing out of the EU under these conditions is unacceptable as well. A general election would not settle the issue since it would not have the authority, to trump a referendum vote. In fact it would give the right an ideal platform on which to defend the original decision and discredit Labour.
In the end it is hard to see, however, that most of those who voted Brexit last time voted for what is now on offer. At least they should be consulted on it. The Sunday Times poll puts voting intentions in a new referendum at Remain 54% no-deal Brexit 46%).
Labour although inhibited by the split in its base over Brexit, has played its hand well until now, increasingly taking the lead in favour of a soft Brexit including remaining in a customs union with the EU. Whilst insisting that it is not calling for a second referendum (or a popular vote on the final deal) has also refused to rule one out. It has become clear, however, that this is its ultimate direction of travel if the political situation opens up for it. Starmer told Marr in a recent interview that whilst Labour is not calling for a second referendum, if the result at the end of all this is either an unacceptable deal (as defined by their six criteria) or crashing out of the EU with no deal then “everything is on the table”.
The EU is a reactionary neo-liberal entity, as Socialist Resistance argued during the referendum. It is a bosses club that offers nothing to the working class in terms of a road to socialism. Socialists should be ready to leave it in order to defend or advance a progressive agenda. Syriza made a big mistake in Greece in ruling such an exit out. There was nothing progressive, however, about a vote for Brexit in the British referendum two years ago. Socialist Worker (June 18th) says that the SWP backed a Leave vote because “we oppose the neoliberal, racist EU” which is “a mechanism to protect one group of bosses’ interests against others.” Indeed it is. But the political content of the referendum, far from challenging that in any way, reinforced it. It was based on racism and anti-immigrant sentiment and on a right-wing English nationalist agenda. The only practical outcome of the Brexit vote was to strengthen such forces along with the right wing of the Tory Party. It would not advance the cause of socialism but set it back and make it more difficult
Those on the left who voted Brexit under those conditions, and who sit back today and make a general comment on the process, and abstractly correct criticism of the EU, whilst refusing to make a class characterisation of it, and seek to push Jeremy Corbyn towards a hard Brexit, are making a big mistake. Brexit is a project of the Tory hard right and is being shaped by the politics of the Tory hard right, and it has become even more dangerous since the impact of Trump, who sees himself as a Brexiteer, on the level of the world order.
An article in the currently on the Jacobin site Why the Left Should Embrace Brexit by Thomas Fazi and William Mitchell argues that Brexit is a once in a lifetime opportunity for the left. That is why he says: “Corbyn must resist the pressure from all quarters — first and foremost within his own party — to back a ‘soft Brexit.’ He must instead find a way of weaving a radically progressive and emancipatory Brexit narrative. A once-in-a-lifetime window of opportunity has opened for the British left — and the European left more in general — to show that a radical break with neoliberalism, and with the institutions that support it, is possible. But it won’t stay open forever.”
In other words Corbyn as leader of the opposition, with his base split on Brexit, should ‘find a way’ of transforming a deeply reactionary Brexit process into an agenda for a radical break with neoliberalism. It is not surprising that they advise Corbyn to ‘find a way’ rather than outlining one themselves. Corbyn has to win an election before he can do anything and he won’t (and certainly shouldn’t) do so by backing a hard Brexit.
Today the Lexiteers critique the Tories and their crisis and blame the EU for being the EU but have nothing to say about what should be done. They are against a second referendum and against staying in the single market – which is a hard Brexit position. They call for a ‘peoples Brexit, ‘one based on creating jobs, building infrastructure and widespread nationalisation’. Don’t we all! The problem is that such a Brexit is not on offer. The choice is between a neoliberal race to the bottom and a slightly different neoliberal race to the bottom—designed and delivered by the Tory hard right.
They are in denial as to whether the referendum strengthened racism in Britain and have nothing to say about the impact it has had (and what impact a hard Brexit would have) on EU citizens living on the country. They refuse to accept the damage that has been done to British society by the Brexit campaign and the Brexit vote—not least in terms of racism and xenophobia—and argue that the Brexit vote has opened up opportunities for the left. A dangerous approach indeed.
David Bush puts it this way on the Counterfire site on 9thJuly: “Two years on it is clear that if Remain (had) won, there would more barriers than openings for the Left. David Cameron would still be the Prime Minister in a Majority government, the Tories would not be racked by political crisis, UKIP would be much more popular and able to harness frustration with the establishment more easily, British and EU capitalists would not be staring down a political crisis, Corbyn would not have had an election that would have put his internal critics on their back foot and shifted the political debate in the country… The role of the left is not to shirk from this struggle, to pine for institutional and political stability of capitalism, but to work to understand the potential, and actively shape the outcomes, of a political crisis. Two years on that is the lesson Brexit.”
The idea, however, that a crisis of the ruling class translates easily into an opportunity for the left and for the working class has dangerous historical parallels and should be avoided. In the same article he argues that: “Dumping Brexit would both disappoint and enrage Leave voters by reinforcing their fear that however you vote the establishment always gets what it wants.”
This is indeed a valid point. It may well do that. And this is no doubt one that has been preoccupying many of those who want to see Brexit reversed. It no doubt preoccupies Jeremy Corbyn as he ponders whether or when to back the demand for a second referendum. But refusing to shirk from struggle cuts both ways. Did all those working class Brexiteers really vote for what it is now clear is going to be the consequences of crashing out of the EU? Some no doubt did but many did not.
We can’t sail headlong into a massive setback for the workers movement on the basis of such a calculation. The Brexiteers argue that a second referendum would be undemocratic. But why? If a referendum votes for a very general course of action that turns out not only to be more complicated than most expected but the options on offer turn out to be much worse than expected, what is wrong with going back and saying: ‘is this really what you wanted? Please make a final decision now that you have the options in front of you.’